The Pros and Cons of Manual Focusing

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Recently, I have been using manual focus more often. I also have an obsession with old Nikon glass. While a good majority of my lens have autofocus, when not working I find myself drawn to manual lenses. Whether it be coffee photography or product shots, I prefer the results I get with a manual focus lens. This does not come without sacrifice though. It has to be something you want to do, as more thought has to go into focusing manually. It’s a skill you have to practice, and there are pros and cons to using manual focus. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, but at some point in your photography life you will do it.

Pros

Low Light

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In a situation where you don’t have a lot of light to work with, manual focusing may be the only way to capture an image. A digital camera’s autofocusing system does not always work reliably, and especially in low light the AF can struggle. Focusing manually can help you get your shot quicker when the camera can’t. Instead of your camera hunting for the subject, you can get it. Your eyes are better than the camera sensor at night. In this regard, camera technology has not caught up to the human eye (yet).

Cost

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Rokinon 24mm T1.5 lens product photos (1 of 3)ISO 32001-110 sec at f - 4.0
Some lenses out there are manual focus only. They are much cheaper than their auto focusing peers as they are easier to design and manufacture. I am not talking about lenses like the Zeiss Otus or Leica glass–I mean lens like those that come from Rokinon or Voigtlander which are available new. Then, there are vintage lenses which can be found even cheaper. If you can’t afford a new Sigma 5omm f1.4, you can get an old manual 50mm f1.4 for a lot less. If yo have a low budget, you will find that you’re be able to do more with manual lenses. Sometimes manual lenses may have more to offer optically because more work went into developing the lens design rather than the electronics.

Availability


When using manual focus, more things become available to you. If you decide to change camera systems, you don’t have to give up your favorite lenses. If you see a lens from a vintage camera, you can buy an adapter like the Fotga Lens Mount Adapter and use it with your camera. Being able to focus manually opens up a whole new world of photographic possibilities. You may find that a certain lens can do different things on another brand of camera. If the sensor is smaller you may find yourself with a bigger crop factor–you can effectively turn a 200mm lens into a 400mm lens and have a reach you could not have afforded otherwise.

Some Situations Call for Manual Focus

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If you are shooting macro or portraits and need precise control, manual focus can be your best tool. You can focus on what your want instead of waiting for the camera to find it (and often miss it.) This approach will make you photography more efficient. When focusing on something small, an autofocus system cannot always see the intended subject. You have a better chance on focusing on the subject manually. When working with a person, you can focus right on the eye and don’t have to wait for the camera. It makes your workflow a little more productive.

You Will Build Your Confidence

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As you use manual focus more, you will find that your confidence does build more. With practice comes efficiency. The more you focus manually, that faster you will become at it. You learn to judge distance and judge where your subject will be when you want to capture the frame. As you capture images and trust your own judgement, other things will become more efficient as well. It takes work, but in the end the results are rewarding.

Cons

Manual can Lower Your Confidence

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Manual focusing can hurt your confidence as well. If you use it at the wrong time and miss key shots, you will hurt your reputations as well as future prospects. Missing a shot sucks, especially if you only had once chance. If you are not willing to miss a shot now and then it can be exceptionally devastating.

Speed and Accuracy

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One of this things you give up, at first, is speed. Manual focus can be slower than autofocus and at times you will miss shots. You will kick yourself in the butt. With manual focus, you have to be afraid to fail now and then. You may not always be fast enough to get your subject in focus… it’s just the way of things. With an autofocus lens, you do have more of a chance of getting the shot (provided the camera focuses correctly.)

You Will Chimp More

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When you are working with a manual focus lens, you will chimp more. You will find yourself checking your images more frequently. This is especially true if you don’t have focus peaking. Even when you build your confidence, you will find yourself checking more. If you are using a camera without a viewfinder, you will also drain you battery faster. You have to get better at focusing or keep extra batteries. When you work with manual focus lenses on mirrorless cameras, you have to be aware of your power consumption at all times.

Action Photography Can Seem Challenging

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You really have to practice this skill. If you don’t pre-focus for your shots, you will miss all the action. Instead of letting your camera do the work, you have to spend more time thinking about what might happen next.  You can’t just pick up your camera and hit the shutter. If you are not willing to put in the time to practice, just go for an autofocus lens. This is where autofocus just may be the better option. If you don’t have the option of missing shots, you have to choose manual focus with caution when it comes to sports and action photography.

Weather

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Manual focusing in crappy weather sucks. Many old lenses are not weather-sealed, and if you do not have rain gear, you will have to put them away. Here you have a point of failure. This can ruin your day or sacrifice a lens for the sake of art. Yes, the lens can be dried out, but with older gear it can be risky. Many newer autofocus lenses are now weather sealed as well. So you have other options for bad weather, and if you are doing this for “work”, your competition will most likely be using autofocus lenses anyway.

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Gevon Servo

Gevon Servo aka @GServo is an eclectic, NJ/NY Photographer. He’s a Nikon shooter, by choice nevertheless, will always test any piece of photography equipment. He believes that like ‘Photography’, ‘Coffee’,’Beer’ and ‘Comics Books’ and other things ‘Geek’ “You must try everything once to discover what you want to try again.